The Chills #1: “You’re out of your senses!”

Get thee to a nunnery 

When a film hits you with such an overdose of poetry that it bends the needle on your Aesthetometer, and the part of your brain known as Fassbinder’s Eggcup starts to overflow with meaningful beauty, causing a pint of freezing cold serotonin to squirt down the back of your neck, the whole thing “kind of monkeys around with the body’s periodontal atrium,” bringing on what we at Shadowplay call THE CHILLS.

You get goosebumps, shivers, all that. You feel in danger of falling into the sky.

In celebration of this neural havoc, we present the first in an occasional series devoted to isolating those dangerous moments of sublime transcendence. Send in your nominations.

Fiona says:

As part of David’s new ‘Chills’ thread I would like to offer up a few thoughts on a specific sequence from ‘Black Narcissus’, but I would also like to talk about the outrageously neglected actress involved, Kathleen Byron. No one in the British film industry (apart from Powell) knew what to do with her gimlet-eyed, somewhat disturbing presence, and after a brief flourish, she all but disappeared from our screens. Fortunately she’s left us with some peerless screen moments, and as she’s still “very much alive” I’d like to personally congratulate her on contributing to that subtle frisson that ‘Chills’ is all about. We’re not talking about fear here. It’s all about that delicious shiver up the back of the neck that happens when you’re particularly moved by something. And this one never fails to get me, even after years of repeat viewing.

The sequence involves the now fully bonkers Sister Ruth stalking ‘our Debs’ (She was a Scot you know) through the mountaintop ex-harem, in a fabulously choreographed sequence, culminating in a murder attempt in the dawn mist. At precisely the moment Kathleen swings open the outer door and we have that astonishing CU on her face, the chills overtake me, the hairs stand up on the back of my neck and I proclaim “F***ing Hell. That’s Genius!” (It’s true. Ask David)

Of course the build up to this moment is crucial — the whole thing was actually shot with Brian Easdale’s pre-recorded score played on the set to provide it with drive and rhythm. But the clincher comes when Kathleen charges through that door in her Kabuki makeup. It’s an extraordinarily stylised, overwrought moment, so unBritish in every way, and I love it for that.

Nun from the Heart

Kathleen should have been a star, with that long, haughty nose, febrile intensity and unconventional beauty, but it wasn’t to be. Outside of Powell’s patronage, she failed to flourish, and that’s a damn shame. For the most part our films just weren’t daring or interesting enough to contain her. However, even her relationship with Powell wasn’t a smooth one. She was one of the few people happy to stand up to him, Powell even suggests in his autobiography the she attempted to shoot him in the nude (her not him). Kathleen refutes it. “Why would I bother to get undressed?” she asks, not unreasonably. Powell had a reputation for being ruthless. Or as our friend, his assistant Lawrie, once simply put it, “A bastard!” Lots of people might have wanted to kill him. One can imagine a whole line of naked assassins waiting to take a pop at him. (Go on, have a go. You can cast it according to your personal preferences and sexual orientation)

Anyway, I digress. Take a look at these screen grabs. They represent the many faces of Kathleen Byron:

Those lips...

Those eyes...

SULTRY

Crazy Kubrick Stare

DEMONIC

Nun But the Lonely Heart

MENTAL

The Killer Nun

and HOMICIDAL

AND THAT’S JUST IN THE ONE FILM!

David here: legendary nonagenarian camera wizard Jack Cardiff reports that he treated the church with red light and green shadows in order to create a psychological disturbance, “as in certain of the paintings of Van Gogh.” He fought with Technicolor to use a diffusion filters for the foggy dawn scene, and Lawrie reported rising very early and going to film a real sunrise. Everybody oohed and aahed at the rushes, but Powell declared the material NG. “It’s too pretty — nobody’ll believe it. We’ll have to do it in the studio!”

15 Responses to “The Chills #1: “You’re out of your senses!””

  1. Have to admit, when I saw a pristine print at the Filmuseum in Amsterdam last November (far superior to the one doing the rounds as part of the retrospect in the UK), that MENTAL moment was truly terrifying for the brief few seconds it lasts! Michael Powell and Emeric Bava, indeed.

    I was also sufficiently aroused by Byron’s corpse-like appearance. But maybe you didn’t need to know that.

  2. Here’s the backstory: During the shooting of Black Narcissus the terribly naughty Mr. Powell dropped his then-flame Kathleeen Byron because he’d fallen madly in love with . . . . DEBORAH KERR!!!!

    Subtext for DAYS, no?

    Mr. Powell never denied being a difficult character. He felt it was a condition of art for artists to be ruthless in pursuit of their goals. Needless to say The Red Shoes and Peeping Tom make this screamingly obvious.

  3. The scary thing is that Powell’s “difficulty” breaks down into three distinct qualities: the ruthlessness and temper, which can easily be seen as part of the territory of making films and caring passionately; the bullying, which is well-attested to and is harder to forgive — Aya, the old “Indian” woman in Black Narcissus, had a terrible time with Powell; and the harder-to-explain forms of cruelty, such as trying to BLIND Pamela Green with unflitered arc lights on Peeping Tom, which you can read about on her website.

  4. When I think of CHILLs moments in film I have to confess THAT scene is the one that comes immediately to mind. I’m going to have to think long and hard about what other scenes can even come close.

  5. Mmmmm, I am on my way to a 35mm screening of Peeping Tom right now, and this post was a tasty appetizer.

  6. “He won’t be doing the crossword tonight.”

    Have a couple more Chills lined up already, but will take suggestions whenever you have ’em. It won’t be daily, since Euphoria started to get a bit exhausting, but we’ll aim to do at least one or two a week, until we’re all sick of it.

  7. Perfect as a double feature with Vertigo — for reasons too obvious to mention.

  8. They didn’t turn the lights all the way down for Peeping Tom, so we could watch each other watching the film. Wonderful!

  9. Or…creepy!

    You could put Peeping Tom together with Rear Window, Frenzy, Raising Cain, Blow Up…it’s the ultimate film mixer! In fact, since it’s ABOUT film, I guess you could put it with ANYTHING.

  10. […] IN THE WEST, and Powell did with BLACK NARCISSUS, and musicals directors routinely do. As our piece The Chills #1 hopefully demonstrated, moving the camera in time with a score is a powerful […]

  11. Don’t forget Michael Snow’s Wavelength.

  12. Words can’t express how much I love this film. I reserve most of my passion for the magic of black and white, but the overall color sense of Black Narcissus is delicious, I’ve watched this film at least a dozen times and I never tire of it. There is a featurette on the Criterion DVD that has Kathleen Byron being interviewed, and she’s wonderful, she and cinematographer Jack Cardiff talk about the making of the film. And Byron tells of the time she got into a cab and the cabbie looks at her and says, “You’re the Mad Nun aren’t you?” I have yet to catch her in The Small Back Room, which has only just come out on DVD (Criterion).

  13. I predict you’ll love The Small Back Room. On paper it’s a far less interesting role for Kathleen, but she makes it one of the great romantics, and even David Farrar comes to life in this one. Plus an incredible supporting cast — Patrick Magee turns up for one line — and that dream/hallucination/imagination sequence everybody talks about, which is either a masterstroke or a colossal misjudgement, according to taste, but commendable for its boldness either way.

  14. In Michael Powell’s commentary for Black Narcissus he bemoans the fact that Farrar was so cavalier about his career, Powell thought he could’ve been so much more. Have you seen Beat Girl from the late Fifties? Farrar plays the pipe-smoking architect father of a sullen coquette who’s giving him grief. Oliver Reed’s a hoot as one of the disaffected youth, and even Christopher Lee does a turn as the proprietor of a strip club. But the real star of the film is John Barry’s music, bombastic and brassy.

  15. Beat Girl has been blogged here! Check it out.

    The Archers had Farrar under contract, so if his career never took off, maybe that’s their fault? But they certainly gave him a chance. I find him slightly preposterous in Black Narcissus but he doesn’t mar it. He’s surprisingly great in Small Back Room. And then kind of ridic again in Gone to Earth.

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